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Inspiration can be a funny thing, especially in the theatre. We all know that Shakespeare took his plots where he could get them. From All’s Well That Ends Well (based on a tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron) to Troilus and Cressida (inspired by Chaucer and Homer), it’s hard to find a play of Shakespeare’s that doesn’t have the ghosts of other authors, often great ones, lurking somewhere behind it. We closed last season with The Merry Wives of Windsor, which has often been identified as Shakespeare’s only completely original plot, but even that play cannot be ascribed solely to him. There’s a legend that Queen Elizabeth herself gave Shakespeare the idea for the play, wishing to see “Falstaff in love.” As a matter of fact, many academics (and directors) now believe this theory to be true.
Like Shakespeare, Nikolai Gogol was a bit of a magpie when it came to collecting ideas. He adored medieval folktales—he was briefly a professor of medieval history at St. Petersburg University—and many of the short stories published early in his career have a grotesque and fanciful quality, as if they were passed down from generation to generation as campfire tales. According to Gogol scholars, in fact, they were passed down to young Nikolai from his Ukrainian grandmother. The Government Inspector, Gogol’s most famous play, has a similar folktale quality, and it was also passed down to him, by one of the most famous authors in Russian literature. The Government Inspector belongs to that special fraternity of plays: those conceived by one playwright and written by another.
In 1835, Gogol was desperate to break into the theatre. He had previously started two satirical comedies, only to discontinue them, frustrated with the obviousness of their targets. He had also quit his post as a university professor. He needed money and, more importantly, a plot. “Do me a favor,” Gogol wrote on October 7, 1835, to his acquaintance, the poet and playwright Alexander Pushkin. His tone was desperate and pleading:
Send me some subject … an authentically Russian anecdote. My hand is itching to write a comedy… Give me a subject and I’ll knock off a comedy in five acts—I promise, funnier than hell. For God’s sake, do it. My mind and stomach are both famished.
Pushkin, who came from the aristocracy, had been mistaken for a government inspector as a young man, and an outline in his Collected Works is eerily similar to that of The Government Inspector:
Krispin arrives in the Province … he is taken for [illegible] … . The governor is an honest fool—the governor’s wife flirts with him—Krispin woos the daughter.
Gogol didn’t stop at taking Pushkin’s ideas. In the play, Hlestakov brags to Marya (the Mayor’s daughter) about knowing all the St. Petersburg authors, including Pushkin. He adds insult to injury by claiming to have written his masterpiece of Romantic verse, Eugene Onegin. “Well, I’m not saying Pushkin didn’t write some of it,” Hlestakov admits, before proceeding to enact a parodic version of Gogol’s own desperate, pleading letter:
We were strolling ’long the Nevsky one day, and I said, “Push! How’s the book?” “Ivan, I am so blocked.” Long story short: The duel? Mine. The “You loved me but I didn’t love you now I love you and you can’t have me” bit? Mine. Royalties and reviews? Him. But I don’t begrudge. He’s working on another one now, by himself. I just hope it’s “gudenov.”
As so often, comedy deflates tragedy, and art imitates life. In the hands of Gogol, Pushkin’s “authentically Russian anecdote” would become a classic of the Russian stage, a chestnut revisited by every successive generation of actors and directors.
As for Pushkin, he was wary ever after about giving ideas to his friend Gogol. “You’ve got to be careful with that Ukrainian,” he is said to have remarked to his family. “He plucks me clean before I have a chance to cry out.” Pushkin would know. After all, in that same letter from October 7, 1835, Gogol wrote to Pushkin that he had completed three chapters of Dead Souls, his only novel. The idea? It had come from a poem. By Pushkin.
Drew Lichtenberg is the Literary Associate at STC and production dramaturg for The Government Inspector. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.